The Tobin Heath Nutmeg Chronicles

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1124259/" data-ylk="slk:Tobin Heath">Tobin Heath</a>'s array of offensive moves is dizzying, and none are more memorable than her signature nutmegs. (Getty)
Tobin Heath's array of offensive moves is dizzying, and none are more memorable than her signature nutmegs. (Getty)

NEW YORK — On a mild late-May morning in Manhattan, with the 2019 Women’s World Cup mere weeks away, I am standing in the most perilous position in global soccer: a couple feet from Tobin Heath.

Sure, some Eastern European ultras would disagree. So might the studs of Nigel De Jong. But there is no footballing fear more universal than that of the meg. No shame more abject and mortifying. And no player who has mastered the humiliating art more thoroughly than the Queen of Nutmeg herself, Tobinho.

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There is no ball at her feet on the sixth floor of this chic Chelsea office building at U.S. women’s national team media day. But as I’ve learned, that isn’t exactly an impediment. Just ask Sam Mewis. She’ll flash back to July. To a USWNT practice. Players were moseying about. “Everyone’s standing with their legs closed,” Mewis recalls. “I literally had the ball in my possession.”

A split-second later, it was trickling back through her feet. Heath was prancing away in delight.

Uh, what? Sam, can you explain?

“Dude, no,” Mewis laughs, still dumbfounded. “I have no idea how it happened.”

Mewis is one of many victims, some of whom have been immortalized on highlight reels or in commercials, others spared by the sacredness of training. But the stories, whether supported by cameras or not, are endless. As a fearless 21-year-old, Heath debuted for the national team with a double-meg of unsuspecting Canadians. A decade later, in her penultimate tune-up for a third World Cup, she megged a New Zealand defender without even touching the ball.

The legend of the serial megger made me curious: How extensive is the list of victims? Does it include, say, family members?

“My mom, in the kitchen, all the time,” Heath says. “She never knew.”

How about animals?

“My dog.”

OK … inanimate objects?

“Yeah, chairs. All the time.”

A full list of casualties will never be compiled, in part because its sheer volume would break any server or operating system, or spill off any manuscript. Ask fellow USWNTers to recount the most ludicrous bit of skill they’ve ever seen Heath perform, and megs aren’t even the first that come to mind. “Like, nutmegs are great,” clarifies U.S. and Portland Thorns teammate Adrianna Franch. “But she does them all the time.”

Utter embarrassment is also an issue. Rose Lavelle admits she’s likely among the victims. But, she says, “I probably blacked out when it happened.”

A litmus test, I figured, would be coaches. The men and women on whom Heath has depended for playing time and mentorship over the years. Would she dare target them?

I phoned her college coach, the legendary Anson Dorrance, to find out.

“She holds the nutmeg record for her coach at the University of North Carolina,” Dorrance said, before I could even inquire. “And no one’s close.”

And as for Jill Ellis? Well, video evidence rendered the question unnecessary.

(Original video: U.S. Soccer)
(Original video: U.S. Soccer)

Tobin Heath’s USWNT nutmegs

Emily Sonnett has a saying. She’s played with Heath for three-plus years now, for both club and country. “I don’t usually get megged,” she recites. “But when I do, it’s by Tobin Heath.”

Heath’s obsession with the meg developed early. Her favorite victim, she says, was her younger brother. At UNC, Dorrance says, she’d meg him “an average of three times a practice,” after team huddles, or from across the field.

Once she broke into the national team, though, casual pre-training kickabouts provided the perfect arena for her compulsion. She’ll wander discreetly, a ball almost always at her feet, her intentions disguised. Then she’ll pounce, anticipating strides or sneaking up from behind. Her strategic arsenal is bottomless. Any player or coach within range is at risk.

(Original video: U.S. Soccer)
(Original video: U.S. Soccer)

Of Heath’s 22 World Cup teammates, a majority have succumbed to her leg-splitting brilliance. Heath admits she hasn’t gotten all 22. Tierna Davidson, 20, identifies herself as one who’s so far steered cleared. But Mewis, Sonnett and Lavelle are on the list.

And Franch?

“Oh, absolutely.”

Abby Dahlkemper?

“Probably.”

Kelley O’Hara?

“Yeah, for sure. But I’ve definitely megged her too. Make sure you write that down.”

And Lindsey Horan, who’s played roughly four years with Heath at two different clubs?

“I don’t think she’s ever megged me.”

Hold up. Never?

“No,” Horan reiterates with a smile. “I don’t think she’s ever megged me.”

Genuinely stunned – and, frankly, skeptical – I take the question to Heath: Have you ever megged Lindsey?

“Yeah,” she assures. “Yeah. She’s not a good defender.”

Tobinho’s greatest hits

The meg, of course, is merely one weapon in Heath’s robust attacking armory. It’s the most relatable and lionized one. But her genius is far more vast. Ask teammates for their favorite bit of Tobinho skill, and they’ll mention this indescribable sorcery:

Lavelle enjoyed the mid-air elasticos:

Some like the ho-hum, on-the-floor version:

(Original video: Univision)
(Original video: Univision)

Others mention broken ankles:

(Original video: ESPN)
(Original video: ESPN)

“I feel like there’s stages to Tobin,” says Allie Long, a teammate of Heath’s at UNC, previously with Portland, and now with the U.S. “She’s Chill Tobin, just good on the ball, typical, whatever. And then all of a sudden, she’s in the corner, and she rainbows someone, and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ Like, ‘What is going on?’

“It’s just so sick that she even has the balls to try that. That’s my favorite thing.”

Same goes for megs. To many, theyre a pre-practice hobby. To Heath, they’re that, but also an in-game tool, applicable in penalty boxes or near corner flags or at midfield.

Heath grew up in New Jersey, but with her soccer heart in Brazil. She adored the joga bonito ethos, and gleaned from it an insatiable appetite for making defenders look like fools. “Earlier in her career, she was that way to a detriment,” Dorrance says. “She was obsessed with doing things the hard way. She would rather chip a goalkeeper than roll it underneath her.”

But she had what Dorrance calls “an absolutely brilliant platform of creativity.” She also had the drive to hone it. She would sneak out to UNC’s Fetzer Field at night, sometimes organizing clandestine pickup games, including one at midnight several hours after winning the 2008 national championship. Once she learned to supplement creativity with ruthless final-third production, she ascended into the sport’s top tier, ready to further announce herself to the world this summer.

“There’s a very strong duality to my game,” Heath says now. “I’m very creative, intuitive – I like to entertain.” But there is also “an intense desire to win, and to be effective, and to do whatever it takes. There’s kind of this fun interaction that goes on within myself of expression and just this frickin’ animal.”

Her description made me wonder: does the “frickin’ animal” follow megs and soul-destroying feints with trash talk? Does she ever use words to exacerbate the humiliation?

“Nah,” Heath says with a grin. “‘Cause you gotta do it again.”

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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